These notes on The Red Kimona and The Curse of Quon Gwon were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Both films will screen in one program on Saturday, October 13 at 7 p.m., the initial program in our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!
By Lillian Holman
When thinking of great American silent films, it is common to only think of the names of the canonized greats. For example, Griffith, DeMille, Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd can all be listed without their first names and a good portion of those reading this will know exactly to whom I’m referring. That being said, if that same reader were asked to name other silent film directors, I’m sure the list would be much shorter. The limited sphere of this perception is due to two competing factors, neither of which is the implied reader’s ignorance. First, the names listed were certainly valorized in the years these films were released and have always been on the lips of movie fans. Second, they also represent a catalogue of films that happened to have been preserved partially due to that valorization. This issue of preservation is the more important of the two since so many silent films were lost due to the fragility of nitrate and the lack of consistent preservation standards at the time they were released. It means that even if we wanted to look beyond these names in the past, it has been too difficult or impossible. It is therefore a luxury now that new digital preservation techniques and wider spheres of inquiry are allowing many forgotten or “lost” films to be rereleased and finally shown to a modern public. The Red Kimona (1925), directed by Walter Lang and Dorothy Davenport, and The Curse of Quon Gwon (1926), directed by Marion E. Wong, are two of these treasures, and unlike the films made by the list above, were directed (or co-directed) by women and, in the case of Wong, directed by the woman thought-to-be the first Asian-American director regardless of gender.
Both these films deal intensely with the issues surrounding their directors’ gender and race. The Red Kimona is a shockingly relevant piece about the sacrifices women shouldn’t have to make and the violence they shouldn’t have to endure in order to work in show business or, in the case of our protagonist, to work at all. Davenport herself makes this abundantly clear in the very rare instance of direct address in the frame narrative of the film, where she “speaks” to the audience about how this is based on a true story and that there are women like our protagonist out there who we should both pity and take care of. It is easy to say that dealing with sexual harassment has always been an issue for women; it is quite different to see it played out almost 80 years before even the invention of Twitter, let alone the introduction of #MeToo.
Meanwhile, The Curse of Quon Gwon , a movie that only exists as a 35 minute fragment of its original feature length, is also about the female experience, but in a very different context than Red Kimona. The female protagonist of Curse, is navigating the more traditional customs of her new Chinese mother-in-law after she has been solidly immersed in western culture. It is a push and pull between the “ancient” and the “modern,” but with the “modern” meaning 1926. It is therefore a unique cultural artifact where we not only get to see a culture ridiculously underrepresented on screen, but we get to witness two different iterations of it and the struggles of westernization at a personal level. What is even more remarkable: the intertitles of Curse have been lost so we experience this all without words, yet it seems like nothing is lost at all.
While these films are remarkable for reasons beyond the identities of their directors, it is still worth taking a step back and noting the fresh perspective it allows us on Hollywood at the turn of the century. When Manohla Dargis wrote about these films on the occasion of July’s BAMcinématek series, “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” she wrote how:
Women have a history of being hidden in plain sight, whether they’re written out of even recent histories or yet more studio executives insist that that they can’t find suitable women to hire. A series like “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” is a crucial part of this revisionism, a corrective to our collective amnesia.
As Dargis suggests, the issue of racial and gender diversity in Hollywood is certainly nothing new, and when looking as far back as the 1920s, it is easy to overlook it or dismiss it as a product of the time, hence the “collective amnesia.” Such amnesia causes us to forget that there were in fact women working in high level creative spheres in Hollywood during the silent era, especially in the early years. Media historian Erin Hill also covers this forgotten chapter of film history when she mentions how in the early 1910s, “in this informal work system, a few women infiltrated such male-dominated fields … [and] ascended from the lower ranks of film companies to roles as writers, directors, producers, and production owners.” The “informal work system” Hill is referring to was the less standardized Hollywood where roles on set were more fluid and open to all, including the women present. She outlines how the increased standardization of the industry was one of the key factors that forced out female creatives. While Red Kimona and Curse of Quon Gwon came out 10 years after the era Hill is referring to and after systems of standardization were beginning to be in place, the women who worked on these films carry on this legacy of female authorship that began in the 1910s. In fact, Hill references Dorothy Arzner, co-writer of Red Kimona, specifically as one of the women who learned every aspect of the trade when she first arrived in Hollywood in the 1910s. Therefore, when we appreciate these films anew, not only are we expanding our canon of great films, they are giving us primary evidence of the work of female artists too easy to assume never existed in the first place.